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S6 E8 –Do food expiry dates really matter?

Food waste is a hot topic in today’s climate which leads us to ask: Are some expiry dates on foods total myths? There’s the arguement that perhaps we should be left to our own devices and be better educated to check for ourselves if something is dangerous to eat. Barry, Ben and Jamie discuss.

Best soundbite:“My Nan finds a bottle of Heinz Ketchup, blows off the dust, pops the cap and I kid you not, some blue smoke comes out of it?!” – Jamie Spafford

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22 Comments

  1. Viconia

    Really interesting episode!
    I did food safety/hygene as a part of my university course, it was rather boring at the time since I was doing veterinary medicine and food safety was not really what I signed up for. But as I remember for hard cheese it’s ok to cut off the mold and eat, since the mold fungi doesn’t really go that far into hard cheese. But bread and soft cheese and other dairy products you should discard if they have mold on it since the mold can disperse far beyond the “lump” of mold that you can see. For meat and eggs as long as it smells and tastes ok you can eat it. Eggs tend to dry out past the expiry date if kept att room temperature, but you can still eat them as long as they smell ok (you’ll definately know if they’re off). With meat you’re more likely to get food poisioning from not cooking it properly (for chicken and pork especially) than for it to be off because you’ll be able to taste that. Fruit and veg is ok as long as it looks and tastes ok.

  2. alltimeash

    I struggle with this sometimes because I have no sense of smell to check if something is ok or not. I rely on my boyfriend for most checks, although if im on my own i will do a quick taste test of milk. i am careful with meat but take more notice of the look of fruit and veg etc than the best before date.

  3. Margusenock

    What a great topic! Thank you for raising it.
    In my family we have 2 extremes. My mom who will never eat anything which is one day older than a date on a label and my farther who can easily cut the mold out of his bread and eat it. To me common sense is the main criteria. I will never joke with medicine. Best before and not a day older. Spices, honey, water – nah! It lasts almost forever if and when stored right 🙂 all the rest – depends on where I am, what it is, how it was stored etc.

    But in general, I hate wasting food so I prefer to visit the shop every other day rather than buy big quantity and through it away.

    Oooh the label science is fantastic!!! I think it’s so amazing! To my family is actually really useful as well since my close relative due to an accident cannot feel any smell nor taste. So this would be a game changing thing to him!
    It will help also when you have a family dinner or friends coming over and you keep food on table for too long. Sometimes for hours. Then you bring it back to fridge and next day eat again. Sometimes I wonder, is it good enough? If this label could adjust and show that – hey this milk is no longer good – that would be great!

    One thing I don’t get is the Norwegian fish that is soooooo rotten you cannot even open the can without being feeling sick 🙂 but it’s a delicacy, with no expiration date….argh… did you try it?

  4. Dimi

    Working with fresh food for basically my whole adult life I spend half my week looking at and analysing use by and best before dates. In Australia, legally you cannot sell anything past its “Use By” date, which, as Ben alluded to, is placed on High Risk foods that are likely to spoil and likely to make you unwell if they have spoiled. The lines are however a bit more blurry with “Best Before” dates. At the supermarket where I work we treat them the same, as in, we don’t sell anything that has reached its date regardless of if it’s UB or BB. However any food past it’s BB that is still OK to consume does get donated to Fair Share programs that feed the underprivileged. In some stores however where they are not as strict you can sell food past it’s BB as long as you let the consumer know that’s what they are purchasing. Also here, every bit of packaged food for consumption needs to have a UB or BB on it to be sold. That’s why things like bottled water and spices/teas that can basically last forever still have dates on them.
    But even with all these rules, we still see food way before its “date” going bad, and we do have to occasionally throw out food that looks fine in order to avoid getting in trouble or accidently making someone sick.

    • Dimi

      In general, at home, I’d say using your senses and instincts is probably the best bet. You can almost always tell if something has gone bad, if not before you eat it, usually once you’ve taken a bite. But don’t be afraid to to try things that are past the date on the pack. There is usually a tolerance built into the date.

  5. Andraja

    Such a fascinating topic!
    I find it really interesting how the designation of the ‘expiry date’ (at international level and in different languages) affects consumer behaviour.

    In Germany, the best-before date is called the “Mindesthaltbarkeitsdatum”. Literally translated this means as much as “the product is edible at least until this date”. This designation guarantees, as Ben said, best quality, best taste etc., is a guideline for consumers and protects the seller. This date can be found on herbs, dairy products, etc. (actually on all products except fruit and vegetables (which have no date) and fresh meat e.g. minced beef, chicken fillet,…).

    Fresh meat products are therefore marked with the use by date, which translates to the same meaning as in the UK.

    But here are the problems.
    Some Germans do not know the difference between the two date terms or think it is the same. And even if – in my opinion – the signification of the two dates is quite clear, I can understand that it comes to this misunderstanding and misinformation, because such topics are not dealt with in school or somewhere else. Either one recognizes the differences of the dates by itself / one is interested enough in the topic to inform oneself about the definitions…. Or you fall for the general misbelief.

    Moreover, many Germans do not know the full meaning of the best before date. Since the designation simply says that the product is at least edible up to the date mentioned, the best-before date has a rather negative ‘reputation’ in the German language. The date is therefore interpreted by many as meaning that the product can no longer be used after the date has expired.
    Although things are getting better and people are increasingly understanding the meaning of the best-before date, there are still many who are sticking to their misinformation.

    In order to eliminate this misconception, many demand that the “best-before date” be renamed in the German language due to its meaning (“at least edible until this date”) and that the renaming be based on the English term “Best before”.
    But obviously there is also uncertainty and misinformation in the UK about expiration dates.
    So I don’t think that a renaming of the German term for the best-before date will have a huge influence on customer behavior.

    Rather, it is important that consumers are better informed (also at the international level).
    And if it is only a simple DIN A2 poster in the supermarket that explains the terms “use by” and “best before” in a few words… Something is better than nothing…

    PS I spoke to a Food Commissioner at the Health Department last year and she said that products like tea and dried herbs don’t go bad (if stored properly) and at most lose their flavour. Therefore they have no “use by date” and even the best before date for such products exists only because of taste and I quote “because of bureaucracy” (of course this only refers to the German definitions and interpretations of the respective terms, but I am pretty sure that – no matter if German, French or English – nothing happens when you drink 100 year old tea except that the taste gets lost 😉 ) .

    • Sorted

      Thank you! So great to hear another country’s perspective on this!

  6. Evelinaalblasskogum

    That thing about labels that change depending on outside temp, we have that already in aviation! 👍🏻
    The label as to been pealed when we get the food from catering. And if it’s a specific colour (our case pink) we are not allowed to serve the food on board because that means the food has been left at a unsafe temperature for a unsafe amount of time 😊
    So we have the technology already!

    • Sorted

      That’s seriously cool to know. Are you unable to serve it often? Does much get wasted on board?

  7. JoRo

    At home I’ll judge by smell, appearance etc. The various dates don’t get much of a look in, would much rather trust my senses, that being said I can vividly remember having soya milk on cereal, was from a carton, well in date, freshly opened, smell was the same as always, looked a little bubbly once in the bowl, but figured I’d poured it so of course there would be bubbles, the second it was in my mouth I knew, before the taste hit it felt fizzy, then the taste hit.

    When I worked in kitchens we obviously had to go by dates and common sense if something had clearly gone bad before it’s use by/best before. Also sort of miss the date stickers we used to put on things so we knew when they had been made/opened, at home I’ll open the fridge and look at the bowl of leftover tuna mayo and try desperately to remember when I made it, end up sniffing it and looking closely to work out if bubbles are starting to appear in the mayo (I’m not organised enough for post it notes in the kitchen, even if I was, would definitely end up pinching them for work).

  8. Helensd89

    I never look at dates on eggs, I always test them in water before using. I have had in date eggs that floated and were therefore off and I’ve had two month out of date eggs that were absolutely fine.

  9. alm477

    Most forms of food poisoning show symptoms within a few hours of consuming off food. That’s why you can develop severe aversions to foods that you eat shortly before getting sick. For example, if you eat a tuna sandwich and get nauseous soon after (regardless of whether it was actual food poisoning, you could also just be coming down the the flu and symptoms hit shortly after you ate) once you have recovered you might become nauseous just at the sight or smell of tuna as your body had identified it as Source Of Illness and doesn’t want you to eat it again. This is can be a problem with patients receiving some forms of chemo who need food shortly before, with, or soon after treatment. Before doctors figured out this was happening some patients were developing aversions to a ton of foods and it made it excruciatingly difficult for these people to eat. Hence why some patients are told to eat a single food they don’t really care for after/with treatment because they are unlikely to be able to stand it after treatment is completed. I’ve even heard that some hospitals will actually keep a special (unreleased to the general public and unusual) ice cream flavor to be given to people with chemo so that is the only flavor they develop an aversion to.

    The labels that match a given foods spoilage rate is pretty cool. I know labels that change color below a danger-zone temperature have existed for a while–designed for temperature-sensitive vaccines going into countries/areas where refrigeration is not assured so that medical personnel know if it’s safe to use.

    We have some old cookie recipes from my great grandmother and one of them had an ingredient that would have me and my dad asking my mom for clarification every Christmas. The recipe calls for “sweet milk” and at least two years in a row my mom would have to tell us that “sweet milk” just meant milk that hadn’t soured, since good milk was not a given for most of my great grandmother’s lifetime.

    Last I heard from either the CDC or the FDA (can’t remember), hard cheese that had mold on it should be discarded entirely. Just because you cannot see fur doesn’t mean spoors haven’t gone through the cheese. In the same vein, I’ve heard pancake mixes should be discarded after their use-by date as they can carry a really nasty breed of bacteria or fungus that if consumed (even after cooking) can cause potentially lethal illness.

    You touched on it a little, but the difference between what we consider “fermented” and “rotten”. With something fermented there is an intentionality and often tight controls to the spoilage (wine, cheese, kimchi and sauerkraut, etc). And yet I think there might be a difference in perception (between cultures generally and differing person to person) on what tastes/feels rotten. Like, I know yogurt is fermented milk and safe to eat (and good for you, if you get the right type), but it tastes rotten and spoiled to me. I can’t just eat yogurt out of a package (not even with fruit or granola) because to me it tastes like Bad Milk That Will Make Me Sick. That rotten taste persists unless it is blended with something (like fruit in a smoothie or herbs and spices in a dip) and then I just get pleasant tartness without the This Is Spoiled Spit It Out Or It Will Make You Sick reaction.

    Sorry about the scatter-shot thoughts as always…

  10. SammiJMB

    My Dad and I had differing stances over food use by’s – he was raised to trust his instincts in the way you describe, and when in the late 70’s/early 80s he worked in the meat and cheese sections of a local supermarket. There it was perfectly okay to cut away the mouldy edges of the stock and sell what was left, and he retained that attitude for the most part. For myself, I was fairly chilled about it as a child from his example, but when I also got a job at a supermarket (where he also worked until he passed away) I became a lot more paranoid about food storage and use by’s – probably because there’s such a high degree of caution within the industry in comparison to forty years ago.

    I’m also hyper-cautious from fear of accidentally making someone sick through something I’ve cooked, especially when my son was little, so I have sadly thrown away food that was probably still adequate, just to be safe.

  11. danielahitstheroad

    As Stephen Fry once said: Cheese is just milk gone off big time stiley.
    Jamie’s face appears to be quite normal, no? In that the nose is directly above the mouth? How can you put anything in your mouth without also smelling it?
    I use the best before date as a rough guide and then rely on my senses. Cutting out bits from fruits and vegs that are spoiled a bit has become second nature since I grow a lot in my garden and there’s always some creature else nibbling on it. I can’t throw away a perfectly fine apple just because it’s a bit sunburned on one side.
    Moldy bits are generously cut out, although that depends on the moisture content of the item. Cans of coconut milk always seem to go off in my fridge. I need smaller cans…
    The only time we’ve fallen ill was when I left a pot of leek+chickpeas soup out of the fridge over the day and it smelled and tasted alright but we both were violently sick. I still don’t know what happened there.

  12. suebarnes

    frozen meat can be stored for a long time, after about 4 months it starts to lose flavour but is still edible. frozen food that has then been cooked can be refrozen and you are back in the same time scales again. Frozen food that has been defrosted and cooked can be stored in the fridge for the same amount of time as ordinary fresh food, about 3 days. You can also defrost meat in the fridge and then refreeze it again if you dont cook it.

  13. suebarnes

    I found today, a packet of hot dog buns in my cupboard, with a best before date of 11th May. It claimed on the wrapper that they had been “cleverly packed to help retain freshness” I opened them up and they were fine, perhaps a little dry but no mould or off smell. I binned them not because I thought they were unsafe to eat but because I didn’t want to eat something that was supposedly fresh but could last for almost three months beyond the recommended date.

  14. Annie1962

    Um Jamie, you say you have a piece of ‘x’ in the fridge?

    Hope you didn’t mean ‘ex’ … 😉

  15. Annie1962

    In my financial situation, I find myself having to be less fussy over ‘best before’ date as they can be offered at greatly reduced to sell and so more affordable. I have found some bargains which are exciting – like 2kg of Vegeta stock powder for half price – the stuff never goes off! But I saved heaps due to them reducing the price for a quick sale.

    Your 4 senses of smell, sight, touch and even hearing will tell you if something is well, ok or not.
    Supermarkets like to cover their butt with those best before or use by dates etc.. so it’s a case of ‘buy this product at your own risk’ but gosh, those reduced to sell prices are a Godsend.

    Over the years I’ve learned to discern what’s good to use and what’s a ‘chuck it in the bin’ situation.
    Dried foods are great for the obvious reasons, as Ben says… spices and dried herbs.
    Pasta is fine if it’s passed the use by date, as are cans of food etc.
    Fresh is the most risky – namely vegetables fruit and fresh meat. Chicken is the most risky (but people are so dang paranoid about chicken today!!!)
    Moist foods that aren’t vacuum packed are the ones to be more cautious of. I won’t buy a litre of milk if it’s in a carton that’s swollen because the chances are it won’t be happy milk.
    Really it’s about using your commonsense and checking the food for viability.

    My ex’s Grandmother was a nurse in WW2 and used to hoard sugar, salt, tea, and soap due to habit from those days – as an elderly lady she had to go to a nursing home and we sort out her stuff. All the products I mentioned were absolutely fine 50 yrs later and I used sugar that old.. was odd to use but kinda exciting and absolutely nothing wrong with those foods!

    • alm477

      I mean…salt and, to some extent, sugar are both preservatives. Salt is a mineral and as such can’t really rot, but I’m curious. Did the sugar look/act normal? I mean, if it gets damp it can get clumpy and if it gets damp AND bacteria got into it you could have a problem…but otherwise…like, it sounds like worked just fine?

      • Annie1962

        Yes the sugar looked completely normal. I used it until it was all gone (now I’m sugar free lol)

        I have friends who keep eggs out of the carton and not in the fridge. They’re ok lol.. but I read that the cartons that eggs come in are the best method of storage.
        Yeah I laughed too at the sniff test for milk because I always do but funnily enough, sometimes the milk that gets caught in the lid can start to go sour, whilst the rest of the milk is fine.

  16. Powerfulweak

    Oh boy, normally I fee so out of my depth on some of the topics for the podcast, but this one felt very relatable.
    I’m super careful about expiration dates now because as a child, I don’t think my mother… believed in them? My mom was always like “oh it will be alright” with items and their expirations, but I doubt that a carton will off eggs is still good 8 weeks past the date. Needless to say, i was sick a bunch as a kid and it makes me super careful now (probably to a fault).
    I laughed at Jamie’s description of sniffing the milk, because that was, for real, who smells fresh milk? I’m far more likely to use a combo of the date and Ben’s visual appraisal in order to determine if milk is still good.

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